Though Republican legislative leaders have already signaled it won't go anywhere, Democrats in the state Legislature relaunched last week their ongoing effort to decriminalize marijuana possession, likely as a way to push the issue to the forefront in next year's elections.
The bill, authored by Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo), Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), Rep. David Crowley (D-Milwaukee), and Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), would decriminalize possessing up to 28 grams, or one ounce, of marijuana or two marijuana plants.
"Currently the criminalization of marijuana accounts for an overwhelming amount of arrests both in Wisconsin and around the country," Considine said at a press conference announcing the legislation. "This bill would go a long way to decrease the disproportionate number of Wisconsinites of color that are arrested for this non-violent offense. Our citizens should not lose the right to be with their families, have a job, or positively contribute to our society in other ways because of small amounts of marijuana."
Considine said the bill would decrease the number of non-violent offenders who are in jail. Stubbs also focused on the impact the legislation would have on incarceration rates and on black Wisconsinites, who are jailed for marijuana possession in far higher numbers than white residents.
"Wisconsin has among the worst racial disparities in the country," Stubbs said. "The mass incarceration of African American men who have been disproportionately charged and imprisoned for low-level marijuana offenses is something that must be urgently addressed."
Stubbs said the state needed to rethink and modernize its marijuana laws.
"Far too many children are being raised without both parents present due to possession of a small amount of marijuana," she said. "And when one community is so disproportionately impacted by these policies, it is beyond time to pursue real solutions. Simply put, we need action - not another study or report. With limited law enforcement resources, it just makes sense to focus our efforts on serious crimes which will make our communities safer."
In Wisconsin, African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at four times the rate of white residents despite similar rates of usage, Stubbs said, and most states that have decriminalized pot impose a civil fine, which she said avoids the life-altering consequences of a criminal record.
Crowley said drug possession laws had been weaponized to ramp up mass incarceration, and the state's laws were now simply a relic of another time.
"While black men, women, and children are just 6% of the population, we make up nearly 40% of the prison population," he said. "This disparity is a direct result of the unequal enforcement of our marijuana laws. In Milwaukee County, 86% of all felony marijuana charges are levied against African-Americans - despite making up only 25% of the county's population."
Of the black men who are arrested in Milwaukee County, Crowley said, nearly 40% are arrested because of drug charges.
"In Dane County, a black man or woman is nearly 100 times more likely to be arrested for a drug crime than their white counterparts," he said. "While studies show that usage rates are roughly the same across race, enforcement is being weaponized against men and women of color to continue the scourge of mass incarceration."
Crowley said the bill should have been passed years ago.
"Wisconsin is now an island of antiquated drug policy in a sea of decriminalization," he said. "It is absolutely wrong to continue this needless cycle of disparate enforcement that continues to feed mass incarceration. I have seen firsthand the devastating effect of our unjust and racially inequitable criminal justice system. We have lost a generation of men and women to the failed war on drugs and mass incarceration. How many more must be lost before we have the courage to do something about it?"
A fiscal high?
Larson likewise said the state was behind the times, but also argued that decriminalization would bring positive economic benefits.
"Support for legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana in Wisconsin has grown to be popular for many reasons," Larson said. "Including so sick people can get their medicine, because it is an additional source of revenue, and also to alleviate the burden on our criminal justice system. Our sick neighbors shouldn't be subject to criminal penalty or jail time for getting medicine they can readily get in other states."
Moderate taxation on marijuana sales would help fill budget holes, Larson said, while decriminalization would reduce arrests of non-violent drug offenders and decrease the population in overcrowded prisons.
"Decriminalization is both a fiscal and moral imperative," he said. "Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that Wisconsin spent $170.5 million in 2008 on marijuana prohibition. Across the nation, states are quickly moving to capture the benefits of both legalization and decriminalization, with 33 states allowing medical use, 15 states have decriminalized marijuana, and 11 states have allowed recreational use. It is long past time for Wisconsin to take this next step."
That step has huge public support, Larson said.
"The latest Marquette poll shows 59% of Wisconsin residents support making marijuana legal," he said. "Republican leaders in the Legislature will continue to ignore their constituents - and our budget - at their political peril."
Risser emphasized that the bill wold decriminalize marijuana, not legalize it.
"I believe it is important to emphasize the distinction between decriminalization and legalization," Risser said. "Decriminalizing marijuana simply means we are asking law enforcement to stop arresting folks for having small amounts of marijuana. For context, 25 grams of marijuana is less than two tablespoons. Under this bill, the manufacture and sale of the drug itself would remain illegal."
Both Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) have opposed decriminalization efforts in the past, and both indicated this past week that they would do so again, effectively dooming the legislation.
Gov. Tony Evers said he would wait to see if the latest bill passed, but reiterated that he doesn't agree with putting people into the criminal justice system simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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